Relatives of Americans who died when a bomb destroyed Pan Am Flight 103 were gripped in a “riptide of despair” after the bomber returned home to cheering crowds in Libya, saying Friday they were considering how they could respond to Scotland's decision to free the Libyan.
Two hundred-seventy people were killed — most of them Americans — when explosives ripped open the jet’s fuselage in midair over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. Abdel Baset al-Megrahi, an intelligence officer for Libya, which had tense relations with the West throughout the 1980s and 1990s, was not convicted of the bombing until 2001. The trial came only after years of negotiations over his extradition with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
Scottish officials freed al-Megrahi, who they said was dying of prostate cancer, on compassionate grounds this week after he had served eight years of his 27-year sentence for murder. Cheering crowds led by Gadhafi’s son greeted al-Megrahi at the Tripoli airport Thursday night — a sight that incensed relatives of his victims.
“He’s home with family, and that’s a lot more than any of us got to do with our children or husbands or wives that perished on that flight,” said Jan Doyle of New Haven, Conn., whose daughter Tricia, a 20-year-old student, was aboard Pan Am 103.
Frank Dugan, head of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103 Inc., an activist group founded by relatives of the Lockerbie victims, told The Associated Press that family members planned to conduct a conference call Friday night to discuss their options. One possibility, Dugan said, is to join protests when Gadhafi visits New York next month.
Larry Mild of Severna Park, Md., whose step-daughter, Miriam Wolfe, also was killed, said the families felt “totally betrayed” by the release of al-Megrahi, which she said had opened a new “riptide of despair.”
“There’s nothing we can do about it,” Mild said. “We feel helpless, on the one hand. On the other hand, we know there’s a bunch of families out there and other Americans who feel the same way.”
The White House, which protested al-Megrahi’s release Thursday, sounded the same theme Friday, with President Barack Obama saying he shared the families’ distress at al-Megrahi's homecoming, which he called an “offensive” display.
A key factor for many families is the nagging sense that the full story of the Lockerbie bombing has never been told. With al-Megrahi free and near death, they said they were distraught that the truth would never be known.
“He was not the only person involved," said Robert Hunt of Webster, N.Y., whose daughter, Karen, a student at Syracuse University, died that day. “Unfortunately, he was the only one who was convicted of this heinous crime.”
Susan Cohen of Middle Township, N.J., echoed longstanding suspicions by skeptics of the Lockerbie trial, speculating that al-Megrahi was not even ill and was released as part of a diplomatic initiative to improve relations with Gadhafi.
Libya is one of the world’s leading oil producers; international oil companies have resumed exploration and production there after the United States rescinded its designation of Libya as a sponsor of terrorism three years ago.
“Shame on Scotland and England and even our own government for not doing more to ensure that this didn’t happen and for its own cozying up to Gadhafi,” said Cohen, whose daughter, Theodora — also a student at Syracuse University — was aboard Flight 103.
Kathleen Flynn of Montville, N.J., whose son J.P. was among the victims in 1988, also questioned whether al-Megrahi was truly ill, asking, “Who knows if we are getting the real facts on his medical condition?”
Attorney says al-Megrahi ‘can’t empathize’
The families were unlikely to derive much comfort from Tony Kelly, the Scottish solicitor who negotiated al-Megrahi’s release.
In an interview Friday with TODAY host Matt Lauer, Kelly said he understood relatives’ pain, but he said “Mr. Megrahi can’t possibly completely empathize with that” because he continues to assert his innocence.
Kelly did acknowledge that al-Megrahi’s release was provisional and said that if he recovers or if — as many relatives believe — “his illness turns out to be fanciful,” the Scottish courts could demand his return.
Not every victim’s relative opposed al-Megrahi’s release, meanwhile, with some saying they accepted the decision as an act of compassion.
“I know that not everyone agrees with that,” said Lisa Gibson of Colorado Springs, Colo., whose brother Ken was among those who died Dec. 21, 1988. “It’s the most honorable thing to do.”
Gibson, a longtime executive with Christian mission organizations, said that if she had the chance to “sit with him face to face,” she would tell al-Megrahi “that, in allowing you to die with your family, we are responding in much more of a dignified way than you have ever responded in taking the lives of our loved ones.”
“Ultimately, even if we let him die in prison, it wouldn’t bring our family members back,” Gibson said. “It makes no difference.”
But Gibson is decidedly in the minority. More typical is the reaction of Paul Halsch of Perinton, N.Y., whose wife, Lorraine, was killed in the bombing.
“I’m against it. He did murder 270 people,” Halsch said. “Really, to be blunt, it would be totally OK for him to return home to Libya the same way Lorraine returned home from Scotland — in a box.”
By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com. Dawna Friesen and Matt Lauer of NBC News, Dylan Ratigan of MSNBC-TV and the following NBC stations contributed to this report: KUSA of Denver; WBAL of Baltimore; WHEC of Rochester, N.Y.; and WMGM of Atlantic City, N.J.